Archive for January, 2008

Learning from children

Monday, January 21st, 2008

When we use the word “language” we mean at least two different things. There are natural languages, such as English, French, Japanese and Greek, and then there are artificially designed languages, like programming languages such as C and Java. There is a big difference between the two.

For one thing, a natural language gets passed down (and evolved) by generations of people. It has to be “naturally learnable”, which means it has to be learnable by two year olds. Actually, little children have super powers: A kid will absorb language like a sponge, with no conscious effort – something most adults cannot do. But children can only perform this amazing feat with natural languages – a kid wouldn’t be able to pick up, say, Java programming in the same way.

Actually, children don’t just learn natural language. Linguist Ann Senghas and her colleagues have documented how a community of deaf children, in just a few generations, spontaneously evolved Nicaraguan Sign Language, a fully mature natural language, from disordered gesture fragments. By “fully mature” I mean that NSL, which has existed for only a few decades, is already as grammatically and linguistically mature and evolved as English, French, Japanese, Greek or any other natural language.

One reason I’m interested in this is that I’d like to explore the question of whether we could get children to build us a bridge between natural language and computer languages. Specifically, could we create an environment for a community of children in which their natural language creation abilities could be put to work to evolve a naturally learnable language that would also be understandable by a computer? Such a cross-over language might contain operations roughly equivalent to procedures, loops, variables and other elements of programming.

This is trickier than you might think. For one thing, programming languages are generally context free – every statement can be parsed in only one way, thereby making it possible for the computer to understand what we want it to do. In contrast, natural languages are context sensitive – even the very grammar of a sentence can be ambiguous and dependent on context. As Groucho Marx once said: “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

If we can create an on-line environment for kids to play together, maybe a place where they can develop fun games, which allows them to evolve a context free language (so the computer software has a chance of understanding what’s going on) will the kids embrace that as a way of communicating, and will their spontaneous language generation skills kick in? I suspect we’ll have to help by designing a graphic user interface that always shows the kids what the computer is able to understand.

What’s the long term goal of all this? Well, if we’re successful, then the sort of people who do not think of themselves as computer programmers – in other words, almost everybody – will be able to grow up being able to tell computers to do things in ways that are now available only to the programmer priesthood. Maybe you could just tell your computer something like:

“Find me a jewelry box for under $200 from some store in my neighborhood that matches the color of my niece’s wedding dress, and put a deposit on it.”

I suspect that the way we’ll say this to a computer will look neither like English nor like today’s programming languages. It will be something new. I do believe that by making use of the language generation capabilities of children, we might be able to evolve an effective way for anybody to possess the power of programming without even thinking about it. Once an ordinary person can casually tell a computer what he/she wants it to do, imagine how that might transform the ways we use future generations of search tools like Google, on-line markets like Ebay, and social networks like Facebook.

I stole one day

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

Today's agenda: Motionless and resting
At home enjoying life, eagerly nesting

Inert, unmoving, Sunday Times acquired
My anatomy reducedly attired

How exotic - lazy endless noodling
Indulging unconditional secludling

I stole one day, oh life is kind
Enjoy yourself: Only unwind

Gods and Puppets

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Today I went with a friend to see a version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, adapted for the puppet theatre as Frankenstein (Mortal Toys) by Eric Ehn, in a production directed/designed by Janie Geiser and Susan Simpson.

Despite, or more likely because of, the rough quality of the production, which had an artful, wistfully rag-tag quality, we found ourselves drawn into the sweeping tragedy of Victor Frankenstein and his misbegotten monster. There was something about the way the creature would appear, at different times, in wildly different scales (something for which puppetry is particularly well suited), which made him seem less a thing of flesh than an external manifestation of Victor’s own misshapen soul, of the ugliness lurking within his selfish vision of glory.

I couldn’t help but compare this with Kenneth Branagh’s disastrous 1994 version, in which there is no way for the audience to separate the hubris of Victor’s character from the hubris of Branagh’s performance of the doomed scientist as a kind of early Romantic-era rock star. Rather than see the character, we see the actor, and we find ourselves saying “Oh Kenneth, just get over yourself.” Which is really not what you want to be thinking in the middle of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Victor as Mortal Toy

Victor as Boy Toy?

In 1811, seven years before Frankenstein was published, in an essay entitled On the Marionette Theatre, Heinrich von Kleist wrote:

“..where grace is concerned, it is impossible for man to come anywhere near a puppet. Only a god can equal inanimate matter in this respect. This is the point where the two ends of the circular world meet.” (translated from the original German by Idris Parry)

Scott McCloud very eloquently expressed a related thought in his marvelous book Understanding Comics when he conjectured why, as realism decreases, audience identification with a character may actually increase:

I think about this in my current work on interactive animated characters; it’s probably one of the main reasons I am constantly drawn to puppet theatre. Characters can gain a kind of power when they have been stripped of detail, simplified, made so universal that they become figures upon which we find ourselves projecting our own internal visions. This is true not just for comedy (what we usually think of when we think of comic books, animation, puppet shows), but for tragedy as well.

The Heleniad, part the third

Friday, January 18th, 2008

The girl was vivacious
And somewhat voracious
The liquor contagious
The boy felt outrageous
Their mood grew gregarious
Till, feeling hilarious,
They descended the palace
And took to the street

In this vast megalopolis
Our winter metropolis
What is our true purpose?
Do our moments usurp us?
For when things become amorous
Then our hearts, feeling glamorous,
May drink from the Chalice
And so be complete

Upon reflection

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

Today a good friend of mine told me that he really likes my blog, and that he also used to have a daily blog for a while. He told me his blog had gotten popular fast, but he had quit because he didn’t like what it had started doing to him. He said he had started to get addicted to having that audience, and so he would find himself writing things just to make his readers come back every day – writing things to deliberately infuriate, flatter, get a reaction. And when he saw what was happening to him, he just quit.

I can understand how a thing like that can happen. You love something, but love turns into an addiction, and that’s when you go through your Smeagol to Gollum transformation:

beginning blogger

seasoned blogger

It seems to me that in the case of blogging the addiction is in becoming outer-directed, in needing to feel the presence of that audience, to the point where all you want to do is feed your audience whatever you think will make it stay with you.

Which started me thinking about who I’m talking to when I blog. I realize that so far I’m not trying to respond to world or political events, nor am I trying to embody any sort of “character”. It’s more like I’m trying to have a conversation with my wide-eyed inner five year old, who thinks that flying cars are neat, who knows that you can find a game within anything, and who really, really wants a pet dinosaur to play with his pet robot. That five year old kid, but with an adult intellectual level, that’s my blogging pal. I think that if I can just keep talking about things with him honestly, then I should manage to maintain a healthy relationship toward this whole experience.

My Mom’s older brother Abe, who sadly passed away much too young, was a great folk singer in his time. Our family has an old and dearly cherished phonograph recording of him singing traditional folk songs (coincidentally, years ago I gave a copy of this very recording to that good friend I was talking about, the one who used to have the blog). There’s a moment on the recording where Abe turns to a young lady in the audience, just as he’s about to sing a tender ballad, and he gallantly says to her: “I sing this for you.” And then he says to the rest of the audience, not unkindly, “You others all may listen.”

My uncle Abe was a very wise man.

When cars fly

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Everybody has a different concept of “The Future”. A few weeks ago I was asked by The New York Times, along with nine other New Yorkers, to predict what our fair city would be like in another hundred years. The resulting article, still available on-line, was called The World of Tomorrow.


Of all the ideas in that article, my hands-down favorite comes from Kate Kaplan, the only non-adult in the bunch (she’s in the seventh grade), who optimistically predicts:

“You’ll no longer have to worry about finding a bathroom; you’ll just carry a small chip with you that can expand into a private portable toilet.”

It’s good to know that at least one person is thinking about the really important things.

I’ve been thinking that one way to measure people’s attitudes toward the future is by seeing what kind of flying car they prefer. The evidence suggests that around fifty years ago lots of people were playing this game, but that it has kind of died out in recent years. Maybe it’s time to bring it back.

Of course all little kids know that the flying car is a key accessory for any self-respecting future family:

But what about bigger kids? I’ve been poking around, and have found a few flying car visions that seem particularly fun. I especially like this one, because it looks like the perfect mid-century suburban dream car, but with the convenient addition of that handy-dandy antigravity drive:

Then there are the contributions of the great Syd Mead, the futurologist illustrator who pretty much invented what people now think the future looks like (all those trapezoids, in everything from Star Trek to Star Wars to Blade Runner, can be traced back to his fevered pen). Here he shows us the flying car as the very epitome of chic and sexy cool:

At the other extreme is the lone inventor longing to perfect his eccentric vision of personal flight. It is said that ago he disappeared into his mad scientist’s workshop, toiling away for years on end while neglecting to eat, sleep or bathe. People wonder what has become of him. Until that one fateful day when he at last emerges, triumphant, vindicated, if maybe a little freaked out by all that bright sunlight:

Then there is that recurring dream of ultimate lifestyle freedom: To embrace technology yet somehow be at one with nature. The car here allows its happy owners to fly right to the door of their woodland dream home. There is even the subliminal suggestion that when you’re done soaring over sun-dappled lakes and forests, you might be able to barbeque right on that humongous grill:

There is a kind of poignant irony to the above picture: We now know that the fuel costs of such a beast would render it about as un-ecological a lifestyle choice as you could imagine.


There are so many possible flying cars, each one promising its own vision for the future; a hopeful offering, rendered in technology, to the gods of Utopia.

What does your flying car look like?

The Trick

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

Somebody asked me today how I’ve been managing to write a blog entry every day, and I started to answer by describing my favorite moment in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. And then I realized that it was one of those key moments of the sort I was describing yesterday, a moment that encapsulates the essence of the entire story.

It occurs near the beginning, before T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole in the film) has gone off to don Arab clothes, endure unimaginable hardships, lead a bloody revolution and transform the political landscape of the Middle East.

He’s still a young man back in England, and one of his fellow students is fascinated by a trick Lawrence does with a match. The trick is simple: Lawrence holds the match between his thumb and forefinger and lets it burn down completely. The other student, full of bluff and swagger, insists on trying the trick, and succeeds only in burning his hand and dropping the match. Whereupon the other student asks what the bloody trick is. Lawrence calmly replies: “The trick is not to mind it.”

And that’s pretty much the key to getting anything done, isn’t it? Don’t even engage with the possibility that you might not do it, and it gets done. In the scheme of things, posting to a blog every day is a pretty easy one. :-)

Something along these lines happened when I was working on my doctoral dissertation. I have a vague memory of intense bleary-eyed effort and catching catnaps under the desk for months at a time. But because, for some mysterious reason, I never entertained the possibility that I might not complete the Ph.D., it all pretty much just happened, without a real feeling of effort.

Have you ever had that sense of utter inevitability, of getting something done by simply refusing to mind it?

Parthenogenic seatbelts

Monday, January 14th, 2008

There always seems to be one scene in a story when the author conveys the gestalt of everything we’ve been reading or watching, but distilled, purified down to its essence. Sometimes the placement is obvious, as in the climactic scene in A Fish Called Wanda between Michael Palin’s stutterer, Kevin Kline’s clueless bad guy and the eponymous fish. Or the scene in Singing in the Rain where Gene Kelly sings and dances the title song.

Sometimes it’s done with more stealth, tucked away so craftily that we might miss it. One of my favorites (ok, nobody else seems to have noticed this one except me, so maybe I’m crazy) occurs at the moment in Jurassic Park when the main characters are plunging down through the air in a helicopter and the paleontologist Alan Grant, played by Sam Neill, who has already been shown to be utterly in conflict with all things technological, cannot find half of his seatbelt.

To set the stage here, it’s important to remember that there are only female dinosaurs in the park. This was to ensure that the scary ones, like those pesky velociraptors, couldn’t ever mate and take over the world. Even so, Ian Malcolm, the cynical mathematician played in the movie by Jeff Goldblum, has been issuing warnings based on chaos theory (don’t blame me, that’s how Michael Crichton writes) predicting that in spite of all the precautions, something is apt to go horribly wrong.

And indeed, it turns out that because the scientists had started with incomplete dino DNA, they had filled in the genetic gaps with frog DNA. In the end those female raptors, channeling their inner frog, start to reproduce by parthenogenesis. Ah, foolish, foolish scientists. Somewhere Mary Shelley and the ancient Hebrew Golem are smiling.

OK then, back to our scene. Sam Neill is sitting there holding two identical seatbelt ends, one in each hand, glaring at them in perplexed frustration. I know you’re way ahead of me here. Finally he just ties the two ends together. And there you have it: Technology subverted by seatbelt parthenogenesis, and the central theme of the movie (the hubris of man’s technology defeated, as “life finds a way”) reiterated in one elegant moment.

Can anybody think of any analogous moments in a novel, play or movie?

Jane Austen’s voice

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

The most essential character in any Jane Austen novel is the voice of the narrator, setting up or commenting upon each scene, dropping hints here and there, letting the reader in on what’s really going on. This places us in a privileged position, and allows us to realize aspects of relationships between characters that the characters themselves do not yet see. Hitchcock and Scorcese do not have access to an omniscient narrator’s spoken voice, but they have the camera, and the editor’s knife, which serve an analogous purpose by sculpting an ever-shifting subjective point of view.

It may be that the most essential change in storytelling from the nineteenth century to the twentieth was the migration of the narrator’s voice from words to images. And how will the narrator’s voice be transformed as our current century progresses? Does it all just end in images, or will something else emerge? Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Dancing about Music

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

Today I saw Fraulein Maria, Doug Elkin’s wonderful modern dance interpretation of The Sound of Music. It’s very “downtown” where the original wasn’t, hip and irreverent, sexy and knowing, yet it captures much of the essence of why we continue to love TSoM, the sheer over-the-top ecstasy of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece.

What I found most striking was what Elkin had his dancers do with “Do-Re-Mi”. Each of the seven notes was given a different dance motif. As the notes were combined, first in simple scales, then in complex melodies, the dancers proceeded to assemble an entire dance vocabulary, an exciting new visual grammar, right before our eyes. Watching this piece brought me back to the feeling of wonder within the original song, that sense I’d had when I was about six years old, watching “Do-Re-Mi” for the first time, that the mysteries of melody itself were being revealed to me. Did you have that feeling when you first saw it? I had completely forgotten that memory until I saw this performance, and suddenly it all came rushing back to me.

It’s so wonderfully synaesthetic to be shown a link between melody as grammar and dance as grammar, in such an entertaining and accessible way. I find myself thinking about other artists who have created these kinds of cross-referencing performances. Basil Twist did it in 1998 with his abstract puppet show of Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique:

The entire symphony was visualized by long colorful swatches of cloth suspended in a giant water tank, puppeteered in time to Berlioz’ music. What I love about this piece is that it shows that it’s possible to have non-figurative puppetry; puppetry not as character acting, but as pure visual music.

Which leads us back in time to Oskar Fischinger, whose abstract paintings and animations, starting in 1921, explored the possibility of pure visual music:

Eventually James and John Whitney, with works like Lapis, as well as other artist/researchers, began to use computers to explore these possibilities in new ways:

Eventually, animation as visual music grew into a large and well-established genre. Try doing a Google search on “visual music” and you’ll see what I mean.

Arguably Piet Mondrian and other De Stijl artists were exploring similar territory by trying to get to a pure grammar of visual representation with works like Broadway Boogie Woogie:

Each of these artists invites us to think about some visual genre, whether it be dance, puppetry, animation or painting, as a kind of music. When I see such things I feel as though I am being invited in to join the fun, to find new ways to see the music in things.

Can anybody think of other genres where something like this has been done?